FROM THE ARCHIVE

Bush administration moving carefully on recognition

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FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, 2001

The role of the staff that handles federal recognition petitions is due for changes under a proposal advanced by a Bush administration official on Thursday.

Appearing on the nationally broadcast radio program Native America Calling, Deputy Assistant Secretary Wayne Smith said he envisions the process as becoming less controversial. Instead of giving the "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" recommendations that have caused problems, Smith said the staff would provide the pros and cons of extending recognition to a particular tribe.

"I'd like to see them more in a relationship of an advisor to an Assistant Secretary," said Smith, who has been tapped to handle recognition matters at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The solution could help end the high-profile disputes that have characterized the process in recent years. On several occasions, the dozen or so researchers, genealogists, anthropologists and historians that make up the Branch of Acknowledgment have vehemently disagreed with their boss, who -- as Assistant Secretary -- should have ultimate authority.

"I don't think when it was first started, they anticipated the adversarial nature of it," said Smith. "It's certainly become much more adversarial than it was."

Agreeing with Smith was someone who has been at the center of the disputes. Former Assistant Secretary Kevin Gover, another guest on the show, said the proposal was "ideal" and might help speed up the slow-moving process.

Whether the idea becomes a reality is an unknown so far. A bill to strip the BIA of its recognition duties has gained momentum and the problems Gover saw in the job led him to testify in support of the measure.

But in his own testimony, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb has resisted taking powers away from his staff. In June, he told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee he wants a chance to reform the system first.

"My inclination is to find out what about that system is not working and try to get it fixed, rather than move the problem to an independent agency," he said.

A key part of potential reform is coming with a General Accounting Office report on recognition. Requested by Republican lawmakers last year, the report is not yet published but Smith said the bureau is in the process of responding to it.

Also pushing the issue are politicians and the media, mostly in New England, who have criticized Gover's recognition decisions. To Gover, the attacks represent attempts to "bully" the new administration.

The message sent by the detractors, said Gover in an interview before yesterday's broadcast, is simple: "If you do what these Indian want you to do, we're going to make you hurt politically."

But Smith discounted the idea that opposition from Connecticut and elsewhere has had a major effect on the Bush administration so far. Even though he has only been on the job a few weeks -- McCaleb has been in office since July -- he said local concerns have mostly played out on land-into-trust.

To many, of course, trust land, gaming and recognition are all related. Although Smith and Gover pointed out that the decision to recognize a tribe is separate from the others, it has been an uphill battle convincing the naysayers otherwise.

So for Smith and McCaleb, a number of challenges are ahead, and they have already run into complaints for reversing the preliminary recognition of the Nipmuc Nation of Massachusetts and the Duwamish Tribe of Washington. McCaleb has also denied recognition to the Muwekma Tribe of California and some fear the Chinook Nation of Washington are next.

The Bush administration will also be finalizing decisions on two Pequot tribes in Connecticut and the Little Shell Chippewa of Montana -- three instances where Gover disagreed with his staff. When those, and others, come up, Smith said they will look at every single case "carefully."

Relevant Links:
Branch of Acknowledgment and Research - http://www.doi.gov/bia/ack_res.html

Related Stories:
Gover takes on recognition (10/25)
Norton urged to uphold recognition (10/11)
Chinook Nation faces reversal (10/3)
McCaleb reverses Clinton recognitions (9/28)
McCaleb to listen 'closely' to recognition experts (8/9)
McCaleb decision sure to draw scrutiny (7/31)
BIA pushed to provide 'answers' on recognition (7/26)
BIA has small goal for big problem (5/22)
Norton won't review Chinook recognition (3/20)
Chinook Nation eager to tell story (3/2)
Gover reverses Chinook decision (1/04)

Blasts from the Past - Indianz.Com Recognition Classics:
Recognition findings a departure (8/16)
Decisions put Gover in the middle (08/16)
Gover wants BIA out of nastiness (05/25)
Town: Gover a 'mockery' (5/25)